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Author Topic: New Threefold Division to Compete with GNS  (Read 4444 times)
fusangite
Member

Posts: 32


« on: November 06, 2003, 07:13:25 PM »

I had never heard of the GNS division when I posted a thread on my theory of play to ENWorld. However, a kind soul directed me here and suggested that this might be a better place to discuss my three part theory of play-- mechanical, textual and metatextual.

I've surveyed the board a bit and am quite impressed by the quality of the discourse. So, I thought I'd dive right in with my crazy theory.

Rather than laboriously cut and paste the various rantings on the thread here, I'll pull out my more coherent comments and also include the URL of the ENWorld thread (http://enworld.cyberstreet.com/showthread.php?t=68315).

Quote
My games run on three levels: the metatextual, the textual and the mechanical. Many GMs, including some authors of D&D 3.x attempt to collapse these levels into a single level of play. Those who seek to collapse all three levels into the textual are considered "role players"; those who seek to collapse all three into the mechanical are sometimes pejoratively called "roll players." (For the purposes of this discussion, I am deliberately not using the term "metagaming" which is problematic and imprecise.)

Unlike most GMs, I am not interested in collapsing my games to a single level; to offer an entertaining game to people with various styles of play, I try, instead, to keep these levels all operating independently of one another rather than organizing them into some kind of hierarchy of good play. Therefore, I expect my players to turn up with all three selves when they come to my games.

I encourage and appreciate those who as players try to decipher the big world puzzle on a metatextual level. Everyone, regardless of their character's intellectual faculties and culture should be able to participate in those process unfettered by textual and mechanical concerns of the game.

I encourage and appreciate those who as players conduct their characters in action in a credible way. Offering credible justifications for character actions, however, is not the same as having characters act solely based on knowledge in their possession. For instance, a shaman or cleric might rush over to a character who is on the verge of death and heal her in the nick of time because the character's player informed the caster's player that she had only 1 hit point left; the fact that this action was decided-upon based on a mechanical play of the game doesn't matter to me -- what matters is that a textual justification is provided, ie. "he looked like he was about to pass out from blood loss." Similarly, an illiterate character might choose to search in a particular spot for an item the player knows is there from a close study of manuscripts that the cannot read; I have no problem with the fact that this action was decided-upon based on a metatextual play of the game, provided that a post-facto justification is offered to explain how the character decided to do this.

I encourage and appreciate those who as players make maximum use of their knowledge of the rules both on their own characters and on other players' characters. Everyone, regardless of their knowledge of the rules, should be able to take advantage of tactical insights gained by those studying them.


Then, in response to a request to define metatextual, I said:

Quote
A metatextual reading of a novel or a a campaign world is about decoding the symbol system the author/GM uses in order to hypothesize about what is going on.

Example #1:

When I began reading George R R Martin's Game of Thrones, I was struck by the emerging civil war between the Lannisters and the Starks and its obvious echoes of War of the Roses. Given that I knew Martin was referencing the War of the Roses, obviously the character of Tyrion was some kind of figure of Richard III. I then wondered what aspects of Richard III, aside from physical appearance Martin would invest in him. Obviously, the character wouldn't be an exact correspondence because Richard III was a York not a Lancaster. So, when he ended up in charge of King's Landing and his two nephews' care, I was quite delighted, especially the way Martin ended up inverting the Richard III myth and having Tyrion end up imprisoned in the tower.

Of course, all this got more complicated when we met the Dornishmen later in the series and realized that what Martin was actually doing was overlaying the Seven Kingdoms of the Reconquista overtop of the Seven Kingdoms of the Heptarchy so that Cornwall and Granada were synthesized into Dorne.

Example #2:

This is my favourite long gaming anecdote that I have tried to reduce so that it doesn't take 30 minutes to tell. This is the experience which sold me on metatextual gaming.

I played in a game in which the characters lived in a world called Midgaard. It was one of the nine worlds which were, in this specific order, Vanaheim, Elfheim, Midgaard, Asgaard, Jotunheim, Svartelfheim, Niflheim, Utgaard and Hel. There is no way I can replicate the incredible richness and genius of this campaign-- it is the second-best campaign I have ever been in. There were many stunning realizations that I cannot do justice to. But eventually, we the players figured out that the nine worlds actually corresponded to the outer nine planets of our system; once we removed Mercury from the model, suddenly, we saw the alphabetical correspondence. Venus, Earth, Mars, Asteroid Belt, etc. The only thing that didn't fit was Hel. This profoundly informed our reasoning as players-- the home of the gods was not a planet. Had it been destroyed in Raagnarok as our myths implied?

We hypothesized like mad about this, as players, because our characters lived in a magic-rich medieval-style society on Midgaard. Our characters could not experience the realization that the adventure was taking place sometime in the past or future of our solar system.

Eventually, our characters were captured and enslaved by Dark Elves and taken to a special building they had discovered that they needed our magical affinity to understand. The building was millions of years old; the back room was occupied by some kind of enormous magic engine that seemed to affect time in some way. The front room was occupied by a series of high seats looking out at the sky through an enormous bay window and spread out infront of the seats was a huge computer system which seemed to glow in all colours of the spectrum that we couldn't figure out either.

We went away puzzled from the session, feeling like we were on the verge of figuring out what was happening. In the shower, 5 days later, it occurred to me that even though the building was rooted to the ground, the engines in back indicated that it was not a building but a ship. And what is that part of the ship faces out into space? The bridge. And what colour is the computer? ...Obviously, we had located the Rainbow Bridge -- the building's purpose, therefore, was to take us to Asgaard!

Sure enough, armed with this understanding of the significance of where our characters were, we focused all our energy on getting the computer to run because we knew it was the Bifrost Bridge. (We later discovered the Dark Elves' code name for their archaeological dig was Project Heimdall.) Sure enough, the building transported us back in time to when (based on the Russian Phaeton hypothesis) the Asteroid Belt was a planet; and, living there were the creatures our characters called the gods. At every stage, our characters' motivations were justified in terms of their own world's events but, as players, our choices were based, to varying degrees, on our understanding of the world's metatext.

Most fantasy worlds resist a metatextual reading because they are not designed to be figured out in this way. Most people who create fantasy worlds use the Jungian/HP Lovecraft method of reaching into the collective unconscious and pulling out whatever jumble of myth, history and invention they find. But I think the best writers and GMs create worlds that can be understood on both a textual and metatextual level. In my best games (ones where I'm not hampered by the D&D rules system), every puzzle I create is solveable on both a textual and metatextual level. The brilliance of the Midgaard campaign is that we still could have used the ship to take us to Asgaard without the realization of what it was.


Then I was asked if a metatext could be added to an already-constructed world:

Quote
I see two main ways of doing metatext in games: story-based and world-based. Story-based metatext can be grafted onto an existing campaign world whereas world-based metatext requires a ground-up approach.

Story-based metatext is pretty easy but somewhat less satisfying and more likely to impinge on the free will of player characters. For story-based metatext, what you need to do is find one or more classic archetypal stories (e.g. Beowulf); optionally, come up with a variation on the story and begin moving your characters along the tradtional narrative but with some kind of twist. Disguising traditional or archetypal narratives is actually pretty easy; usually just situating the story in your campaign takes care of that.

All you need to do is figure out which parts of the story matter to you and proceed from there. If I were to do a Beowulf adaptation, the things I would keep would be:
(a) the three part structure Grendel (Earth), Grendel's Mother (Water) and the Dragon (Fire)
(b) discovering his sword could not damage Grendel's mother and fighting her with his bare hands until he could steal an ancient magic sword from her hoard
(c) the dragon being wakened by someone raiding the hoard of an ancient and forgotten race
(d) Beowulf having to hold his breath a ridiculously long time to fight Grendel's mother

First, I would disguise the setting by moving it ahead into the high medieval period. Then, I'd probably change Grendel so that he was clever and more obviously some type of earth elemental.

Second, I would probably connect Grendel to the evil water elemental creature some other way but maintain their objective: to destroy the human city that sits on the territory that was once theirs. Obviously, I'd also design some kind of special immunities and vulnerabilities for the evil water element creature.

I would probably also add an air element creature at the end because that is suggested by the way physics works in D&D.

World-based metatext is challenging, exciting, requires research but actually doesn't take any more work than traditional world building. What is different is when you do the work and what kind of work it is. But I'm going to pause here and resume my explanation once I've had dinner.


Then, after dinner,

Quote
First off, I'll begin with my metaphor. Imagine that you're looking at an attractive abstract pattern on your computer screen. It may be that someone has carefully drawn this pattern pixel by pixel or it may be that the pattern is actually a Julia set-- an infinite abstract pattern generated by a single complex equation.

Most campaign worlds are constructed pixel by pixel -- some gigantic bitmap that someone has lovingly created; let's call that the imaginative campaign world. The kind of world I find most exciting is one which is, instead, generated by a single complex equation; let's call that the mytho-poetic campaign world. The difference between the two types of world is what happens if you zoom in or move off the screen. If you zoom in on a section of the imaginative campaign world, depending on its resolution, you will either find a carefully hand-drawn scene or blocky pixelated images. On the other hand, if you zoom in on a section of the mytho-poetic campaign world, you will initially see blocky pixelated images-- these will then resolve to images as detailed at the larger image. If you move off the screen of the imaginative campaign world, there will either be nothing or another, adjacent bitmap. If you move off the mytho-poetic campaign world, you will experience much the same thing as if you zoom in: blocky images resolving into smooth detail. Of course, the speed with which the image resolves is based on two things: the speed of the processor and the difficulty of the equation.

Sorry for the lengthy extended metaphor. So, what does a good campaign world equation look like? A good mytho-poetic world is constructed much the way you make a conspiracy theory: substitute correlation with causation. Examples of good world equations: What if the 7 angels of the 7 churches of Asia plus the Son of Man are the same people as the Eight Immortals of the Tao? What if Arthur's original quest for the Holy Grail described in Spoils of Annwfn took place in the Americas and the key grail artifacts were actually the key artifacts described in the Book of Mormon? What if the nine worlds of Norse myth were actually the outer nine planets of the solar system?

Start with one preposterous instance of a myth system, science, historical event or epic story appearing symetrical to some other myth system, science, historical event or epic story and you'll soon find other correspondences. In the Eight Immortals story, there was the text in the Book of Revelations that only someone whose name was written in the Lamb's Book of Life could enter the New Jerusalem taking on new meaning when it was noted that one of the ways the Monkey King of Chinese myth became thrice-immortal was to erase his name from the list of fates of all mortal beings. With the Holy Grail thing there were the different forms of the grail corresponding to different Mormon artifacts: the Lance of Longinus/Javelin of Teancum, Sword of Laban/Excalibur, the grail carved from the emerald which broke from Lucifer's crown when he was cast down from heaven/one of the Seer Stones of Zarahemla.

So, to write a mytho-poetic campaign, you come up with your conspiracy theory-like idea. Then you do heaps of highly selective research to find little facts which, taken out of context, make your theory appear credible. Then, you should be able to deduce roughly what each part of your world is like based on the interplay of these ideas. Of course, you still have to do work when characters do something unexpected and you need to do some episode prep but I find that I do 50% of my total campaign prep at the beginning while I'm fashioning my conspiracy theory and the other 50% preparing for individual episodes. But I find my total campaign prep time is about the same.


Then, in response to someone suggesting that imaginitive fiction also has metatext, I added

Quote
The Campbell/Jung approach is good for creating fantasy worlds. However, in such worlds, the metatext is merely allusive; it cannot be predictive. The advantage to more deliberate metatextual construction is that the players can use it to make deductions about current and future events in the campaign.


And in response to the following example of such a world...

Quote
Humans were mutated orcs?

Magic was nanotech?

All sentient beings were actually the pets of a greater being, and the world was the cage?

The game world was actually the place where bad folks go when they die? (One I once considered using)

This kind of questioning might not result in the same strength of story direction, but can result in a world every bit as vibrant as one built around the synthesis of two or more ideas.


To which I replied,

Quote
Yes it can. But, as you can see, only the text will allow people to "figure out" what is going on. A metatext of this nature does not provide for a third level of play or an alternate system of deduction. As such, while technically a metatext, it is only accessible to the players in hindsight.

I don't wish to argue that mytho-poetic worlds are more vibrant than imaginative worlds. The reverse might well be the case; the problem of the imaginitive world (as you have described above) is that it only permits play on the textual and mechanical levels. For a level of play to work, there must be some predictive value associated with it. What you are creating above is a world which has a metatextual level in which the players are bystanders. All worlds have metatext (whether consciously placed there by the GM or coughed up via some "Jungian slip") but only some (ie. mytho-poetic worlds) permit metatextual play.


So there you go... if you have read all this, clearly you have too much time on your hands but, if that's the case, you're exactly who I'm looking for. All reactions/responded to whatever portion of the text you get through would be appreciated.
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"The women resemble those of China but the men had faces and voices like dogs."
-- A 6th century account of Fusang, the country across the Pacific from China.
Calithena
Acts of Evil Playtesters
Member

Posts: 336

aka Sean


« Reply #1 on: November 07, 2003, 07:12:27 AM »

Hi, Fusangite.

I think your use of metatext is really interesting, and have occasionally employed that kind of device in my games as well.

It seems to me though that that's more under the heading of 'GMing technique' than the theory of gaming proper. Is a metatextual reading necessary for people to have fun in any particular style of gaming? There is a lot of enjoyment to be derived from that 'moment of realization' where you come to understand that your gaming environment is open to more than one interpretation, or that you can see it differently than your characters, or whatever - and I commend you for exploring it so thoroughly. But I don't see as how it's a necessary or essential part of enjoyable gaming.

Some around here might also suggest that having a focus on all three of these levels at once might be difficult, and that one would have to 'drift' the game between GNS modes to enjoy them all fully. I'm not sure about that, though, so I'll let others comment on that part.

I really enjoyed your thoughts on gaming at the metatextual level - it just seems to me that this is at the level of storytelling technique rather than RPG theory proper.
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Ian Charvill
Member

Posts: 377


« Reply #2 on: November 07, 2003, 11:02:00 AM »

Hi, Fusangite, welcome to the Forge,

What you're describing here as the meta-textual level are pretty tightly bound in with, what are called round here, issues of "stance" - with meta-textual issues arising mostly in "Author stance" (especially from your description of the Midgard campaign).  To do what the players want but justify - usually retrospectively - in character/setting terms is a pretty clean and - in my experience - very productive style of play.

Good stuff!
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Ian Charvill
jdagna
Member

Posts: 563


WWW
« Reply #3 on: November 07, 2003, 11:12:33 AM »

Welcome to the Forge!  And thank you for an interesting article.

The real problem I see with metatext (as presented so far anyway) is that it's a totally passive phenomena for the players.  Their role is to find meaning hidden by the GM and admire his cleverness.  I do not see that players have any way to contribute to, or change, the metatext, which is precisely why I agree with the previous post that this model is best used as GM advice, not a play model.  And as GM advice, it is very interesting, especially during world-building.

However, I am not at all clear on what the textual level really means.  All I know from the article is that it has something to do with credibility, but that you don't mind if they have a low standard for credibility as long as players offer an excuse for what they do.  Frankly, a cleric healing a character with 1 HP left based on player knowledge sounds like a prime examples of mechanics at work - not credible conduct.  I'm a little puzzled that a flimsy "in-character" excuse provided after the fact can change mechanical into textual for you.

Have you looked at the stances defined in the GNS essay by Ron Edwards?  I think your categories relate very closely to stances.  Mechanical = Pawn, Textual = Author/Actor and Metatext = Director (with you examples assuming only the GM has this power).
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Justin Dagna
President, Technicraft Design.  Creator, Pax Draconis
http://www.paxdraconis.com
fusangite
Member

Posts: 32


« Reply #4 on: November 07, 2003, 11:38:16 PM »

Ian Charvill says,

Quote
What you're describing here as the meta-textual level are pretty tightly bound in with, what are called round here, issues of "stance" - with meta-textual issues arising mostly in "Author stance" (especially from your description of the Midgard campaign). To do what the players want but justify - usually retrospectively - in character/setting terms is a pretty clean and - in my experience - very productive style of play.


In terms of authorial stance, the model I offer distinguishes two models: imaginative and mytho-poetic. Imaginative worlds/stories permit two types of play: mechanical and textual; mytho-poetic worlds/stories permit three types of play: mechanical, textual and metatextual.

So, I would argue that mytho-poetic world construction is a necessary condition of metatextual play, I would not argue that the three modes of play are authorial stances. They are three ways all participants have the option of playing.

jdagna says,

Quote
The real problem I see with metatext (as presented so far anyway) is that it's a totally passive phenomena for the players.  Their role is to find meaning hidden by the GM and admire his cleverness.  I do not see that players have any way to contribute to, or change, the metatext, which is precisely why I agree with the previous post that this model is best used as GM advice, not a play model.  And as GM advice, it is very interesting, especially during world-building.

What you're describing here as the meta-textual level are pretty tightly bound in with, what are called round here, issues of "stance" - with meta-textual issues arising mostly in "Author stance" (especially from your description of the Midgard campaign). To do what the players want but justify - usually retrospectively - in character/setting terms is a pretty clean and - in my experience - very productive style of play.


Well, to the extent of players being able to change the symbol system, I agree with you. However, creative operation within the symbol system is encouraged. Just as in mechanical play, there is creative application of the rules system, within metatextual play, there can be creative application of the metatextual system. For instance, once a group of players is faced with the realization that they are, in some way, the eight immortals of the Tao or Bors, Gawain and Parzifal, their behaviour determines which of these individuals they become.

Similarly, if you know that your game's canon is based on Norse myth mapped onto the solar system, you can abandon your plan to see Loki in his prison and instead go to Uranus because you would rather deal with Utgaard-Loki there and the metatextual framework of the campaign essentially requires him to be there. Because metatextual play has predictive value, you can employ mythic forms, tropes, events and symbols in the service of your agenda as a player. Because this is a shared, agreed-upon metatext, you can take the initiative if you acquaint yourself with the literature on which it is based.

In my Book of Mormon campaign, I was using Urim and Thummim only as described in LDS Scripture. One of my players did an exhaustive search of the Old Testament for seer stone lore and Urim & Thummim in particular; he was then able to use this data to steer the party's employment of the seer stones in a different direction.

Quote
However, I am not at all clear on what the textual level really means.  All I know from the article is that it has something to do with credibility, but that you don't mind if they have a low standard for credibility as long as players offer an excuse for what they do.  Frankly, a cleric healing a character with 1 HP left based on player knowledge sounds like a prime examples of mechanics at work - not credible conduct.  I'm a little puzzled that a flimsy "in-character" excuse provided after the fact can change mechanical into textual for you.


Nope. Sorry for the misunderstanding. What I was describing was mechanical play. All I was saying was that mechanical play should require some kind of post-facto justification in textual terms -- just as metatextual play also should.

Quote
Have you looked at the stances defined in the GNS essay by Ron Edwards?  I think your categories relate very closely to stances.  Mechanical = Pawn, Textual = Author/Actor and Metatext = Director (with you examples assuming only the GM has this power).


Not yet. I'm still assimilating all the material on the site. I would be very appreciative of a short list of the URLs of the material it is most important for me to acquaint myself with.
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"The women resemble those of China but the men had faces and voices like dogs."
-- A 6th century account of Fusang, the country across the Pacific from China.
Ian Charvill
Member

Posts: 377


« Reply #5 on: November 08, 2003, 03:26:20 AM »

Quote
Nope. Sorry for the misunderstanding. What I was describing was mechanical play. All I was saying was that mechanical play should require some kind of post-facto justification in textual terms -- just as metatextual play also should.


This is what classifies your examples as 'author stance'.  Absence of post-facto justification would lead to 'pawn stance'.  The ability to instantiate new symbols would create 'director stance'.  Pure textual play would be 'actor stance'.

The important thing to remember here is that all I'm doing in indicating local terms.  You shouldn't assume, for example, that 'author stance' means that extensive authoring is going on.

The basic essay for this would be GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory with the subsection of stance being Chapter 3.

The articles section in general contains a lot of worthwhile stuff.  But the above article and its companion piece System Does Matter is probably the best place to start.
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Ian Charvill
fusangite
Member

Posts: 32


« Reply #6 on: November 08, 2003, 09:47:36 AM »

Thanks very much for the references. You're right: metatextual gaming requires an author stance.

I would suggest that my definition of "mechanical" encompasses some simulationist and some gamist play; my definition of textual encompasses some simulationist and some narrativist play and my definition of metatextual is a subset of narrativist play.

Calithena says,

Quote
It seems to me though that that's more under the heading of 'GMing technique' than the theory of gaming proper. Is a metatextual reading necessary for people to have fun in any particular style of gaming? There is a lot of enjoyment to be derived from that 'moment of realization' where you come to understand that your gaming environment is open to more than one interpretation, or that you can see it differently than your characters, or whatever - and I commend you for exploring it so thoroughly. But I don't see as how it's a necessary or essential part of enjoyable gaming.


It is sufficiently rare that it cannot possibly be a necessary or essential part of enjoyable gaming.
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"The women resemble those of China but the men had faces and voices like dogs."
-- A 6th century account of Fusang, the country across the Pacific from China.
fusangite
Member

Posts: 32


« Reply #7 on: November 09, 2003, 01:20:06 PM »

As I've stated in other threads, I've revised my opinion. I've been convinced my approach is broadly gamist.
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"The women resemble those of China but the men had faces and voices like dogs."
-- A 6th century account of Fusang, the country across the Pacific from China.
jdagna
Member

Posts: 563


WWW
« Reply #8 on: November 09, 2003, 01:28:52 PM »

Fusangite,

Sorry for taking so long to get back to your answers on my questions.  I think you cleared up my confusion on your definitions of mechanic/textual (thanks!), but I'm still not sure I understand exactly what you mean by textual?  Does it prmarily describe the events that happens in play, like a transcript of the game session from the characters' perspectives?

If I'm reading you right, it sounds like a textual player focuses on those elements and wants to be consistent with each other.  Mechanics are just a means to an end (something players use to help understand or arrive at the textual) and metatext is something the textual player feels he should ignore because the character certainly wouldn't be aware of it even if the player is.  Is that about right?
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Justin Dagna
President, Technicraft Design.  Creator, Pax Draconis
http://www.paxdraconis.com
fusangite
Member

Posts: 32


« Reply #9 on: November 09, 2003, 02:27:26 PM »

Jdagna,

Quote
Sorry for taking so long to get back to your answers on my questions.  I think you cleared up my confusion on your definitions of mechanic/textual (thanks!), but I'm still not sure I understand exactly what you mean by textual?  Does it prmarily describe the events that happens in play, like a transcript of the game session from the characters' perspectives?


Textual play is play based on the literal narrative generated by the play. Textual play is about deciding what to do based on what is happening to the characters in the story. It is distinct from metatextual play in that it is based on the events exclusively rather than being informed by any symbol system into which the events can be translated.

Quote
If I'm reading you right, it sounds like a textual player focuses on those elements and wants to be consistent with each other.  Mechanics are just a means to an end (something players use to help understand or arrive at the textual) and metatext is something the textual player feels he should ignore because the character certainly wouldn't be aware of it even if the player is.  Is that about right?


That is about right, I think. Well summarized.

EDIT: Oops. There is one thing I keep forgetting to do. I must credit Philip Freeman and not myself with figuring out how to design worlds in which metatextual play is possible because the metatext can be predictive. I would never have come up with such an advance myself.
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"The women resemble those of China but the men had faces and voices like dogs."
-- A 6th century account of Fusang, the country across the Pacific from China.
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